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Sextortion: What it is, How it Happens and Who’s at Risk

August 14, 2023

5 Minute Read

Sextortion cases are rising. Here’s what you need to know:

Among the many online threats today’s teens face, one is quickly rising: sextortion. Between 2021 and 2023, the number of online enticement reports, the category that includes sextortion, to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), increased by 323%. Unfortunately, this trend is continuing, and teenage boys have been the most common targets in more recent cases. Our latest research found that 812 reports of sextortion were received by NCMEC weekly between 2020 and 2023, with more than two-thirds involving financial demands.

Thorn has conducted research and built campaigns to combat this threat since as early as 2015.

In reports from early 2022, 79% of offenders were seeking money from the victim.

What is sextortion?

Sextortion – a word combined from the words sex and extortion – is when someone’s sexual imagery is used to extort them. Put simply, it’s when someone (a.k.a. a sextortionist) blackmails or threatens to expose another person’s sexual imagery to make that person do something they don’t want to do, like send more compromising photos, maintain contact, or send money. Both online strangers and former romantic partners can sextort victims in an attempt to harass, embarrass, and control them. 

Sextortion – a word combined from the words sex and extortion – is when someone’s sexual imagery is used to extort them.

Sextortion is a crime

The crime of sextortion may happen when a person has shared a nude or nearly nude photo or video with someone they met online and thought they could trust. Unfortunately, in many cases, the child has been targeted by an individual with malintent: someone who is looking to obtain sexual imagery from the child through deceit, coercion, and other nefarious methods. 

Often, the offenders gain trust by pretending to be someone else (e.g. catfishing) by sharing images of another person who they’re attempting to impersonate, like another child, and/or they use fake accounts to communicate with the child. Once they receive the child’s explicit imagery, they then blackmail and threaten that child with the release of the imagery, unless the child does as they say. 


Sextortion can happen on any platform with messaging 

Unfortunately, it seems that no platform is immune from these types of scams. Sextortion cases have been reported on most of the major social media, dating, gaming, and messaging apps. 

NCMEC’s 2022 CyberTipline report cited an increase in sextortion cases as a contributing factor to the 82% increase in reports in the online enticement category from 2021 to 2022. 

In 2022, of all CyberTipline reports, 99% were submitted by electronic services providers (ESPs). A review of all reports to CyberTipline shows reports from chat apps Discord and Omegle more than quintupled. Google, TikTok, Twitch, and Grindr also increased their report submissions, while reports decreased from other platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Dropbox. 

Which factors may make some kids more vulnerable to sextortion? 

Interacting with others through the internet is an important part of how kids socialize, regularly connecting with people they know only online through mutual friends, shared interests, and games. Importantly, they often don’t consider them strangers, even if that online friend is an adult. 

We learned from our research that, for many kids, chatting and flirting with adults they met online was seen as normal. Seemingly innocent flirtation or friendship can quickly turn traumatic if a child is tricked or coerced into sharing intimate images and those images are used to blackmail them.

Sextortion is extremely traumatic and isolating

Roughly 85% of young adults and teens surveyed who had their intimate images used as blackmail by a peer or online perpetrator said embarrassment was their primary reason for not going to their friends and family for help. 

Kids experiencing sextortion often do not see themselves as victims and instead believe it is their fault this is happening to them. Kids experiencing this type of online abuse can feel shame, fear, hopelessness, and isolation, which perpetrators rely on to carry out their threats. Sadly, we have heard about cases rapidly escalating and resulting in self-harm and suicide.

How to know if you’re being sextorted

To help figure out if what you’re experiencing is sextortion, try and use an “if, then” statement. So, if you don’t do something, then there’s a consequence. For example:

  • “If I don’t give them more nude images or meet them for sex, then they’ll post online all the private pictures I already gave them for my family/friends to see.”
  • “If I don’t give them a nude picture or have sex with them, then they said they’ll hurt themselves or break up with me because I must not care about them anyway.”
  • “If I don’t give them money, then they’ll share a private video of me that they recorded while I thought we were just livestreaming.”
  • “If I don’t stay in a relationship with them, then they’ll post the images I shared with them while we were together.”
  • “If I give them just one more image, then they’ll stop threatening me and leave me alone.”


If you’re still not sure, read some sextortion survivor stories to see if there are parallels to what you’re going through. No matter what, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. And if you’re in a similar situation, you should know what you can do about it.

What can you do if you or someone you know is being sextorted?

If you or someone you know is being threatened online, know that this is not your fault, you are not alone, and there is hope to get to the other side.

  • Make a report to NCMEC’s Cybertipline at
  • Reach out to NCMEC for support at  or  1-800-THELOST 

Learn additional steps you can take in our post about how to stop sextortion.

Original publish date: November 14, 2022

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